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By JIM McCUE | Contributor   Derek Swafford arrived at the Sacramento High boys basketball program when the school was at a crossroads.  It was...

By JIM McCUE | Contributor


Derek Swafford arrived at the Sacramento High boys basketball program when the school was at a crossroads. 

It was 2003 and Sacramento High School had just become a St. HOPE charter school. Swafford’s tenure began at the start of the 2003-04 season and has since included seven consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section Division III finals appearances “”winning five of them, including the last three.

But, despite the rapid success that Swafford’s teams achieved, the coach firmly believes in pacing his team to reap the benefits of its hard work. With just four seniors on the roster this season, Swafford is doing all he can to emphasize pace, so that this Dragons team will be hitting its peak down the stretch””of each game as well as the season as a whole.

“These kids sometimes want to win the game in the first quarter,” Swafford said after Sacramento defeated Analy-Sebastopol in pool play of the St. HOPE Elite Hoop Classic. “I have to try to rein them in sometimes and remind them that there are three more quarters to play.”

Sacramento (6-2) won its tournament with a perfect 4-0 record during pool and bracket play, culminating in a 57-44 victory over Bakersfield in the Gold Bracket final on Dec. 17. 

However, Swafford was not as interested in coming out on top of the Gold Bracket as he was in getting his team on the court with top competition from the Southern half of the state. 

Bakersfield and Pasadena””both ranked among the top teams in their respective sections in Southern California””were among  the handful of teams that accepted the invitation to play in the tournament. Dorsey-Los Angeles and Compton also brought their talents north.

“We want to see the Southern California teams as much as we can because we know we have to face the best from down there down the road if we want to be successful in the state tournament,” Swafford said. “(This year’s 12-team format) is just the start of what I really want to do with the tournament. We want to get this to a 16-team tournament that showcases some of the best teams from Northern and Southern California.”

For this year, the Dragons measured up well with their Southern counterparts. They may have even grown into the role of the patient, consistent team that Swafford hopes to see in February and March when postseason play rolls around. In the final against Bakersfield, Sacramento held off the Drillers with a strong fourth quarter.

Senior guard Eric Kinney, who has committed to Cal State Bakersfield, is the team’s leading scorer, but concentrated his efforts on rebounding and defense to help the Dragons outlast the Drillers. In the game against Analy, Kinney found a shooting groove and tallied a game-high 26 points while showing his ability to score from outside or inside.

“Everything starts with the defense,” Kinney said. “We focus mostly on defense which starts the offense for us. We like to run out on offense, so sometimes coach has to tell us to slow things down.”

That patience, and the pace that Swafford preaches, are not lost on a team that is hopeful of living up to the reputation of previous teams and players established at the Oak Park neighborhood campus. Kinney and senior backcourt mate Darius Graham, a UC Davis commit, may have their college plans set, but they know that they have a legacy to live up to in high school first.

“It’s real important to live up to the Sac High name,” Kinney said. “There are a lot of guys that have created a legacy, and we want to make sure that we live up to being Dragons.”

After Christmas, Sacramento will head south to face more quality competition at the Holiday Hardwood Tournament at Oaks Christian-Westlake Village before starting Metro League play in January. Ideally, the Dragons will get more exposure to the speed and style of Southern California basketball, so that they might last long enough in the postseason to get another taste of it. The Dragons will compete in Division II this year after dominating Division III for so many years.

“With these tournaments, I would rather get beat and learn than win by 20 points,” Swafford said of the early season tournaments. “We’re still learning how to run our schemes and learning to be more disciplined, but I know that we can compete with the best teams in the state.”


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